Thermal Bath Houses of Budapest
One of the things a visitor to Budapest should be sure to sample is one or several of the large thermal bath houses spread throughout the city. I had the pleasure of visiting two during my stay and they were an absolute delight. The two I visited are two of the more well known and well visited establishments, but my research did indicate that there are several others around the city that would offer a similar experience, and maybe with less of a crowd. I will add however, that although the baths do stay pretty busy (at least when I was there in the middle of winter), I certainly didn’t get a tourist vibe. The customers are pretty varied and it seemed to me that Hungarians did make up at least a decent chunk of the population at each bath house.
The first stop on my bath house tour was the Szechenyi Thermal Bath. It’s one of the largest bath houses in all of Europe, but definitely doesn’t feel quite so large if you visit in January like I did. Some of the larger pools are outdoors, and as far as I could tell, did not open during the colder months. Szechenyi is located within the Varosliget Park, northwest of the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament building, which served as my reference point for pretty much everything during my visit. It’s only about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the river.
One aspect of the bath houses that stuck out to me was navigating the locker rooms and rooms containing the pools and saunas. The locker rooms at Szechenyi in particular were a bit confusing. You pay admission, and for use of a locker, but the locker is really more like a small changing room that you can leave your belongings locked in. Additionally, there were all sorts of people roaming around the locker room, so you definitely should make sure you’re not strutting around in the nude. You should also make note of where your changing room is located. The locker room area is pretty large, and needless to say, it’s a labyrinth of rows upon rows of tiny changing rooms.
Once you are able to figure out the locker room, you still have to locate the thermal pools. There are a variety of different pools at different temperatures in different rooms. I got turned around a few times, but the good news is that even if you do get hopelessly lost, you’re going to have a hard time finding a room that doesn’t have a pool in it.
Szechenyi is a pretty big place for just being a bath house, and there were quite a few people there enjoying it. I wouldn’t call it crowded, but there’s certainly plenty of people around regardless of which room or which pool you’re in. It was my second favorite of the two bath houses I visited, but because of its architectural beauty and significance in the historic bath house community, I definitely still enjoyed it.
My preferred bath house was the Gellert Thermal Baths, just across the river and on the southern side of the Gellert Hill. The facilities at Gellert were a bit more luxurious, and a bit smaller than those at Szechenyi, but for the most part, quite similar. There were numerous baths of different temperatures and sizes, confusing locker rooms and corridors, and people of all ages enjoying a good soak. One notable difference however, was locker rooms that would be more familiar to an American, without the individual changing rooms in favor of a more standard locker room set up.
I found the baths at Gellert to be a little quieter and less confusing than Szechenyi, but also more interesting to look at. There were several pools that had an elevated second level overlooking the baths, as well as numerous fountains and seating areas. Gellert also looked like it had a pretty sizable outdoor pool area, which did not appear to be open during the winter months. Although I did prefer Gellert to Szechenyi, they’re both pretty similar and as long as you like hanging out in warm pools with a bunch of strangers in beautiful old buildings, you can’t go wrong.